Every few months we hear of a brutal case of gangrape that involves a gruesome level of violence and we leave our houses to protest the injustice of it. Ultimately the nature and timing of our outrage creates this monolithic image of a rape victim and abandons the majority of rape survivors. Ranjhana Kumari of CSR weighs in on how outrage might be part of the reason why we are losing the fight against rape culture.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
We sat together on the bleachers on a Sunday. The school was closed but some of the students had been called in for a self-defence seminar that we were there to film for a news feature.
“How do you think the Nirbhaya case changed your life?” I asked her.
“I think the main thing is that now we talk about it,” she said adjusting her white headband, “Before this we didn’t used to talk about rape and violence, even when it made us angry it was on the inside.”
I wondered how much a fourteen-year old could remember of rape cases before that one.
“What made you most angry about it then?” I asked her.
“The way they treated her… It makes me so scared to live in this city thinking about how much rape there is,” She said, clearly still traumatized like many of us by the details of the case even though it had been almost five years, “The violence and the cruelty, how can we allow women to be treated this way?”
It’s a good question. It’s one I have asked too ever since the first time someone told me not to do something because I was a girl. It’s one I have continued to ask in more nuanced forms as I grew older. It’s one I find harder and harder to answer, but the young girl I was talking to seemed convinced that the reason this treatment of women has continued to this day is because we hadn’t been talking about it until then. She is right to a certain degree, we overwhelmingly agreed as a country after December 16, 2012 that the events of that day were going to end the silence. The discussion of rape was going to be brought out to the dinner tables, intersections and drawing rooms of the country. The outrage was palpable, and more than justified, since after decades of telling each other to just adjust, we finally had the stage to scream our grievances and pain in response to eons of system violence.
The answer to the question of whether things have gotten better since then remains ambiguous. It would be foolish to deny that legislative change has taken place or that awareness of women’s rights and issues has been expanded. It would also be naïve to discount that a movement that openly and dedicatedly counters women’s liberty has also become more active in response to women’s voices taking the fore instead of our silent suffering. However it is not possible to say that rape has decreased
in our country nor that the possibility of a death penalty has made rapists less brazen in their use of violence. Since Nirbhaya, we’ve risen up in arms as a country a few more times. We did it with Mumbai, Badaun, Unnao, Kathua, Hyderabad and most recently we did it for Hathras. Each one of these cases has a few things in common — They are all cases of gangrape that got a tonne of media attention, unnatural levels of brutality and violence were applied in each case and in many of them the victims succumbed to their injuries.
The nature of each of these cases begs the question: Is it rape culture that makes us angry or individual instances of horrific violence?
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 32,033 cases of rape were registered in the year 2019 and while the exact number of cases that involved battery is unknown, only a handful of these cases gained national attention last year. In 2017, NCRB also reported that only 6.9% (of the 30299) cases reported that year were cases of stranger-rape and in 93.1% of the cases the rapist was known to the victim. In 10, 553 of these cases the victim and the rapist were friends, partners or living together. Only a small number of these cases led to hospitalizations and a miniscule fraction to death, and while the cases involving murder have risen over the past five years (by almost 30%), they are still, as the statistics go, “rare” cases. However these rare cases of rape are the ones that are more often discussed, protested and serve as the hook to into a discussion of rape culture.
From a certain standpoint, it makes sense. The cases of gangrape, which average roughly 16% of rape cases reported in 2019, tend to be more violent and have a higher tendency to result in death which certainly moves one more to action by the sheer act of shocking our sensibilities. In these cases of violent rape and murder, it is also harder for the victim to choose not to report the incident because they might have already been reported missing, died or in need of medical treatment. The press can report on all cases of rape, and sometimes do, but because of the trainwreck syndrome the ones that get more attention tend to be these cases where gruesome violence has been committed. It’s the ill of a news peg too, without it we wouldn’t be able to ask young schoolgirls about their feelings on rape. We are taught to use real-time incidents to strike up conversations about issues that may have persisted for a long time and with good reason, often in the absence of a news peg one wouldn’t be very interested in reading about rape and violence.
The problem with our response to these stories is multi-pronged. As a trigger reaction we protest to demand justice in the case at hand, something that absolutely should be delivered, and as a long-term reaction we internalize the fear of how unsafe our surroundings are and teach our girls more and more techniques of being safe sometimes even using these cased of brutal rape as the cautionary tales. Even when we understand that putting the onus of safety on the potential victims is counterproductive, we still do it because we are scared. We are scared for our friends, our daughters and our partners and we believe we can arm them with whistles and keys against a culture that objectifies them. While gangrape is certainly not a scare-tactic, it works well as one, and it paints a certain picture of rape in our minds.
I often ask people to try this: Paint a picture of what you think rape is, visually, in your head and then describe it. Overwhelmingly, the victim is female, there is more than one perpetrator and there is an escalated level of physical violence. Due to the nature and timing of coverage and outrage in response to rape in India, we have painted a monolithic narrative when it comes to rape. We have narrowed it to a specific image.
How does this happen?
“There are organisations that work on these issues all year,” says Ranjhana Kumari of Centre for Social Research, a group dedicated since 1973 to creating a society free of gendered violence, “The cases that get attention are the ones that are picked up by the media or politicised by the local authorities, and those issues get the limelight either because of the extreme brutality or because politics takes over the issue. Everything else continues to get pushed into the background.”
Ultimately this image and this metered, timed outrage might be part of the reason why we are unable to tackle rape culture as a whole in this country. We have built an image of a rape victim which reduces them to only a helpless, broken creature that has been attacked or killed, an image we can both comfortably rally around and politicise, and because of that when we are confronted by victims who do not fit the narrative, we are not only less likely to believe them, we are also more likely to question aspects of their behaviour and personality to determine why or if they were raped. There are various forms and types of rape. A woman might be raped by a person she trusted and loved, but when confronted by this, we might question the veracity of her claim because after all, wasn’t she already seeing him and maybe this is just a lover’s spat? A young girl might be coerced by a boy she met online and grew to like, but if she is raped, will we outrage or decided we need to keep young girls away from computers? A woman may be raped by her own husband, something our law refuses to recognize as a crime. A woman might be raped by a man because she tried to end her relationship with him. A woman might be kept silent not by way of violence but by threat of exposure or fear of being disbelieved. A woman might be raped for years by the same man, and even end up married to him. In most of these instances, if they do come to light, we are less likely to believe victims, more likely to shame them and much, much less likely to lead a protests around town. Does that mean these forms of rape are less serious or more likely to be the woman’s fault?
The greatest disservice that we do to our women is to make it harder for them to be believed or speak up when they are faced with sexual assault, which almost 80% of the women in our country claim to have experienced in some form. The greatest impediment to speaking out when faced with sexual violence is the environment and we live in an environment where one’s experience must be measured, qualified and fact-checked by an archaic methodology before being ratified as the truth. There is base- level qualification, in that if something we consider “minor” happens, like an uncomfortable interaction with your boss or men calling out to you in the street, we tell the victims to ignore it. That is best and safest. If someone touches you or “outrages your modesty”, the most common advice is to cut off contact and increase the safety measure you apply everyday, and after a safe amount of time has passed, to examine your behaviour and see what you might have done to encourage it. If you claim to have been raped, and you choose to report it, you must prove that claim. That makes sense however unless you go have yourself examined immediately, which apparently is what any decent Indian woman would do right after being raped, there are fewer chances of evidence being found on or in your body. However one can be raped without their body or genitals showing signs of distress, it is medically proven that a woman might display clincal signs of arousal during rape and that is why a woman’s vagina is not where we should be looking for proof of consent. Also not all rape involves battery or confinement, in fact most rape doesn’t, and it is not necessary we will find signs of violence on the body of the victim. Legally, the deck is stacked against the victim in a manner reminiscent of the social environment.
“A medical examination of the victim is conducted as soon as the police are notified of rape however there no necessary psychological evaluation by a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist, a “reasoned” report must be prepared by the investigating officer who should give precedence to whether the victim was consenting or not, as well as an evaluation of the physical state,” says high court lawyer Sumit Chander, “Section 164(A) mandates that a note be taken of the mental condition of the victim but no psychological evaluation is mandated by law, it would be very hard to prove a case where there were only psychological signs of rape and no physical signifiers.”
Legally a conviction is more likely, but not guaranteed, in cases where there is physical proof of rape and that remains part of the reason why rape reporting as well as rape-convictions in our country have historically been abysmally low. Even legally, unless a rape victim is able to fit into the medico-socially drawn out narrative of being a rape victim, their chances at justice are slim. Convictions for crime against women stand at 19% according to the NCRB data in 2016. All of this is not a function of the small percentage of gangrape and murder cases that cause 90% of our outrage, it is part of a culture of minimising the value of a woman’s voice and ensuring the male-entitlement to female bodies continues unchecked when we are no longer feeling the urge to go down to India Gate and scream.
At the end of the day, outrage and protest have their purpose, and in this case the purpose has been determined to ensure swifter justice in cases of brutal, murderous rape and call out blatant violations of legal protocol. Outrage is not an efficient or complete method for tackling rape culture as a whole because outrage minimises the nature of rape, the narratives of victims and the socially sanctioned environment created by the patriarchy to allow gender based disparity to continue, utimately creating an environment that is socially and legally less trusting of victims and less likely to work in their favour if they do not meet the standard requirment of qualifying as a victim. Systemic legal and social change comes from constant effort, and not fits of anger that manifest in an outpouring of emotions every six- months that lay forgotten when your neighbour tells you she felt harassed by the grocer, and you secretly feel like she might have asked for it by being unnecessarily flirtatious.
Because the rapes don’t stop once our candles burn out and we return to our homes, they continue, quietly conducted without physical “harm” by people who often know us. The rape victims don’t stop screaming, then why do we?